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What can I do to help my family be safer online?

In the span of a few short years the internet has become a critical component of life in the 21st century, and we are quickly becoming a world of those that are online and actively participating in the digital society, and those that aren’t.

Parents who fail to instill in their children the skills and responsibilities needed to successfully and responsibly navigate this new environment will fail to have prepared them for success. But this does not mean the internet is without risk. Simply mention the words internet and child in the same sentence and many parents start getting anxious – and it’s no wonder given the sensationalized press coverage of many online crimes. Fortunately, reality is far gentler that the media hype most of the time.

With some basic safety principles, skills, and choices, you and your children can confidently explore the web, try new services and be safer. Creating this safer online environment helps protect you, your family, your computers, phones, personal information, and reputation.

Here is a 11 point checklist to get you started on the road to Internet security, privacy and safety that will help you steer clear of Internet hazards whether you’re sending e-mail, dating online, making purchases or socializing – and whether you are on a computer, or your phone.

1. Secure your computers and smartphones with anti-virus, anti-spyware, and tools.

Keep them current and use them unfailingly-as automatically as locking your door when you leave the house. A computer that does not have security software installed and up-to-date will become infected with malicious software in an average of four minutes. That malicious software will steal your information and put you at risk for crimes.

  • Install anti-virus and anti-spyware software and keep it up-to-date. If your computer or phone isn’t protected from viruses and other malware, your financial information, passwords and identity will be stolen. This concept is so basic, yet only 20% of the US population adequately protects their computers.
  • Secure your internet connection – Check to ensure your computer’s firewall is on. If you use a wireless network, it needs to be encrypted to thwart others from logging on and collecting your information. Never use a public WiFi service for any type of financial transaction or other type of sensitive information transfer because you cannot know how protected – or infected – that service is.
  • Use added protection for sensitive financial, personal and medical information. For added protection keep your finances inaccessible to anyone who uses (or hacks into) your computer. You can do this by password protecting individual files or folders on your computer, or by keeping this information on a flash drive or CD that you keep in your safe or other secure location when not using.

2. Use strong, unique passwords for every site.

The key aspects of a strong password are length (the longer the better); a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols; with no ties to your personal information, and no dictionary words.

3. Read and understand the privacy terms and settings of every site you use.

Create an environment of safety for yourself by understanding how any website you use treats your privacy and your information. That fine print may tell you the company can own, resell, rent, or give your information to anyone they want. If it does, find a more respectful site.

4. Talk about online safety with your family and friends.

Think about your own personal values and need for safety. Then share this information. You won’t be able to respect each other’s privacy and safety boundaries if you do not know what they are. Decide what information about yourself you are willing to have shared online, and with whom you are willing to share it.

5. Be discerning about who you interact with and what information you share.

  • The risks of interacting and sharing are relatively low when you stick with people you know—your family, and close friends. Going into public chat rooms or opening your blog up to the general public, for example, significantly increases your risk.
  • Think carefully before posting any information that can personally identify you, a family member, or friend on public sites like blogs, white pages, employment sites, or any other place your information may be collected by data miners or people you don’t know. Sensitive information includes real name, birth date, gender, location, contact info, schools you attend, employer, and personal photos.

6. Understand messaging risks.

  • Use extreme caution before opening attachments or clicking links in messages -even if you know the sender. If you aren’t expecting the content, call and find out if they really sent it. Their account could have been hijacked and the links and attachments could be sent to transmit spam and viruses to your computer.
  • Delete messages asking you to provide personal information, especially things like account numbers or passwords, even if it seems to be from a business you trust. Reputable businesses will not ask you for this information in e-mail. Instead, use a search engine to get to the real site yourself; if the message was legitimate, you will find the same message in your account.
  • Don’t share spam. Whether it’s a ‘thought of the day’, ‘jokes’, ‘amazing pictures’, ‘a recipe tree’ or something similar, if you don’t personally know the sender the email is likely to be a scam designed to collect the email accounts – and relationships – of everyone you share it with.

7. Freebies aren’t free; don’t trade your personal information.

  • The free games, free offers, and ‘great deals’. Just as in the physical world, if these types of offers sound too good to be true, they probably are. Not only are these companies likely to collect and sell your personal information, these ‘deals’, and ‘free’ applications are usually riddled with spyware, viruses or other malicious software.
  • Through surveys, sweepstakes, quizzes, and the like. These marketing tools are designed for one purpose – to get as much information from you as they can, so they can sell that to interested parties. Even the most innocuous surveys learn far more than you imagine, and they may give you malicious software or download tracking cookies, so just skip these entirely.

8. Periodically prune your contacts lists and profiles.

Internet housekeeping is important. Review who you have as contacts, and who can see your online profiles to prune out those you no longer have a close relationship with. Review images and content you’ve posted to see if collectively these tell more about you than should be known; if they do delete accordingly.

9. Check your credit reports.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Stay on top of your credit scores to prevent malicious charges piling up or fraudulent accounts being opened and used under your name. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have the right to a free credit report year from each of the three national credit reporting companies—TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. The easiest way to do this is to request these through

  • Request these reports for yourself, your spouse, and any minors over the age of 13 living at home to protect all of you from fraud. Victims aged 19 and younger accounted for 8% of identity theft complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission in 2010 according to the FTC.
  • You can also pay for credit monitoring services that will alert you to any suspicious activity or changes in your credit scores. Many banks and other financial institutions offer this service as do several independent companies.

10. Block people you don’t want to interact with.

You don’t have to accept invitations to be friends with people just because they ask. Women in particular can find it difficult to turn someone down – and creeps and crooks count on this very thing. If you don’t want to be friends, delete the request. If you are already connected with someone you would rather not be connected to, block them. You can also set a block on their email account so they can never contact you through email, and block their phone number from calling or sending text messages to your phone. YOU get to choose who, how, and when you are contacted.

11. Trust your instincts.

Online and offline, instincts play a critical role in your safety. If something feels suspicious, trust with your instinct. You don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Following these eleven steps will go a long way to keeping you and your family safer, but bad things sometimes do happen. If you or a family member fall victim to a scam, fraudster, abuser or criminal, the only person guilty is the abuser or criminal. You may have been naïve, or careless, but that does not give anyone the right to cheat, scam, lie, threaten, harm, steal, or abuse you in some other way. They own their actions, not you. Speak out, report the crime, and get any help you need to resolve the problem.


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